Getting Creative in Volunteer Management

As Director of Gardens and Grounds at Tudor Place, one of my tasks is to manage the garden volunteer program. I was blessed to inherit a wonderful group of loyal volunteers who have been working in the garden for several years. Its a very symbiotic relationship between organization and volunteer. Good relationships bring numerous rewards to each party. In bad situations, parties vote with their feet. Especially in a town like Washington DC there are numerous opportunities to donate time and expertise to other worthy organizations. In a society with abundant competition for volunteer hours, it is critical for volunteer managers to be sensitive to the needs of loyal workers while at the same time adhering to overall goals such as advancing garden projects. Good communication is key. Its important to be inclusive and flexible.

At Tudor Place, garden volunteers donate approximately 100 man hours each month. These hours are very useful in tackling necessary tasks as well as freeing up staff to pursue more technical projects. I’m lucky enough to have a current bunch of volunteers who are knowledgeable, inquisitive, and are always learning. Every week I aim to teach them something new about the garden and always leave the session learning new things myself. Apart from the great conversation, we also aim to be productive. As with most historic gardens, most tasks are not glamorous and include weeding, deadheading, seed collection, and seasonal cleanup.

After spending a few months assessing this program, I decided improvements were needed in order to keep things interesting with the seasoned volunteers while also enticing new recruits.  Garden maintenance was still important, but I also wanted to provide them with opportunities to learn new skills beyond the gardening context. In this post I’d like to share three recent activities that aimed to fulfill these changes.

Hypertufa Container Making

In a cold period in November when leaves were already cleaned up, I decided to host a hypertufa making workshop for the volunteers. It was great opportunity for them to learn a new novel skill and was a good break from their regular task. In return, we made dozens of new containers for the gardens and even sold some in the gift shop. Opportunities like this also present a good dry run for the possibility of having a paid workshop for the public in the future. We also got daring with a few mammoth-sized containers. They are turned out very well!

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Research and Special Projects

I also aim to rotate opportunities for problem solving and thinking to help break up long periods of manual labor. Yes, there is satisfaction behind mulching a huge flower bed over the course of two weeks, but its also nice to have a cool project to talk about while getting your hands dirty. One such instance was helping to date a white oak that had recently fallen on the property. We looked at historic accounts and counted the rings of several slices of the multi-stemmed trunk to determine its age. This information was highly useful for record keeping and subsequent reports.

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Holiday Decorations

And finally, we had fun getting into the holiday spirit with Christmas decorations. In this case, the volunteers did the teaching as we made bows for swag and crafted naturalistic peppermint sticks for planters. It was fun! And based off of user feedback, activities such as these are very helpful in maintaining a healthy group of volunteers.

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